New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: March, 2014

Haskell Small Plays a Shattering, Haunting Program on the Upper West

More musicians should do what Haskell Small does: he plays what he likes, and brings it to life, sometimes quietly, sometimes somewhat more boisterously, putting his heart and soul into it. He gravitates toward music that’s on the quiet and rapturous side: his performance of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada here last year was absolutely riveting. Friday night on the Upper West Side, Small revisited that theme, bookending an absolutely shattering performance of his own suite The Rothko Room with music of Satie and Alan Hovhaness.

Kicking off the evening with Satie’s first suite for piano, Four Ogives, set the stage perfectly. The title refers to church windows; with a delivery that managed to simultaneously embody stateliness, a warm gospel tone and an understated tension, Small left no doubt that by 1886, when Satie wrote this, he’d already found plenty to be vexated about. The evening’s piece de resistance was Small’s original work, an uninterrupted theme and variations based onboth  the life of Mark Rothko as well as an immersion in the Rothko paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room in Washington, DC. Centered around a mournful bell-like theme that immediately brought to mind Mompou, Small worked dynamics that ranged from minute to occasionally jarring, through an unexpected boogie-woogie flavored passage and another, longer, bitingly animatedly interlude that strongly evoked Small’s early mentor Vincent Persichetti. The depiction of a late-career resurgence for Rothko brought back a hopeful, once again gospel-tinted ambience, but that quickly dissolved into an increasingly spacious, imploring and then utterly defeated series of motives. Small quoted Rothko beforehand as declaring that the only emotions worth depicting are doom and suffering, then made good on that statement.

The pianist picked up the pace after that with a series of ruggedly pastoral solo works by Hovhaness, illustrative of that composer’s fixation with mountains (he saw them as transitional from material to the spiritual, halfway between earth and sky). The Lullaby from the piano sonata Mt. Katahdin (a peak in Maine which barely qualifies as a mountain) took shape as a steady, morose dirge, contrasting with the tricky tempo and cruelly challenging staccato octaves of the Macedonian Mountain Dance, a Balkan boogie of sorts. Small made a different kind of challenge, the contrast between low-register, resonant malletwork inside the piano and the steady righthand melody, seem easy.

“Now for some rock n roll!“ Small grinned, winding up the program on a defiantly celebratory note with the Hymn to Mt. Chocorua., from Hovhaness’ 1982 sonata portraying the New Hampshire hill where the Indian warrior it’s named for reputedly lept to his death rather than surrendering to the bounty hunters who’d chased him to the summit. With its blend of traditional Armenian kef music and savage, Lisztian block chords, it was quite a change from the mystical, somber mood Small had brought to life so vividly earlier, an atmosphere he returned to with the encore, a tender, lushly spacious version of Arvo Part’s minimalist classic Fur Elina. Small’s spring tour featuring these works continues on April 11 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

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A Star-Studded Tribute to the Hendrix of the Pedal Steel, Buddy Emmons

If there’s one instrument most closely associated with classic country music, it’s the pedal steel. Buddy Emmons is recognized as the Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel – in addition to his revolutionary, jazz-inspired style and technical innovations, he also patented and first produced the version of the instrument that’s been the global standard since 1962. Emmons got his start as an eighteeen-year-old phenom in Little Jimmy Dickens’ band in 1955 and never looked back, recording and touring with Ray Price, Roger Miller and a stampede of country stars as well as recording many of his own albums which explore jazz as well as C&W. There’s also a compilation album, The Big E – A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons, out recently, with many of the world’s top pedal steel players and country stars paying tribute to the iconic musician/inventor. The whole thing is streaming at Spotify.

The playing throughout the tracks here is fantastic: although there’s a rotating cast of musicians, they pretty much sound like a single great Nashville band circa 1965 or so, a mix of current-day stars and veterans trading licks throughout a smart, inspired mix of some of the songs most closely associated with Emmons throughout his country career.

Vince Gill leads a band with steel players Paul Franklin and Tommy White trading richly jazzy western swing solos before Gill himself shows off some jazz guitar chops on Country Boy, an early Little Jimmy Dickens hit that Emmons played hundreds of times onstage. Steve Fishell takes over the pedals with his own resonant, terse licks on Emmylou Harris’ and Rodney Crowell‘s duet of That’s All It Took, a Gram Parsons homage. Duane Eddy exchanges low, twilit guitar shades with steel player Dan Dugmore‘s judicious riffs and Spooner Oldham‘s similarly tasteful piano on Blue Jade, a big Emmons instrumental hit. Then Willie Nelson contributes a spare acoustic take of Are You Sure, which he co-wrote in 1961 with Emmons.

Longtime Buck Owens steel player JayDee Maness and guitarist Albert Lee exchange purist, sometimes whispery, bluesy verses on instrumental version of the 1963 Ray Price hit This Cold War With You. John Anderson sings the 1958 Ernest Tubb honkytonk single Half a Mind, Buck Reid employing the famous tuning that Emmons invented while showing off some juicy western swing riffs. Greg Leisz follows with a mostly instrumental version of Wild Mountain Thyme, slowly making his way through the melody and then adding some richly tuneful embellishments.

John Sebastian’s Rainbows All Over Your Blues gives Maness and Lee a chance to choogle and spiral, followed by the album’s most energizing number, Doug Jernigan‘s lickety-split version of Buddy’s Boogie, an iconically difficult piece in the pedal steel canon. Then Brad Paisley’s longtime steel player Randle Currie takes it down, spacious and suspenseful, on a take of Willie Nelson’s Night Life sung by Raul Malo.

The Lee Boys’ Roosevelt Collier plays steel with a snarling but cool Albert Collins-style tone on a version of Feel So Bad, Fishell following with more sunbaked, sustained lines behind Chris Stapleton’s animated soul vocals. Joanie Keller Johnson‘s lovely Dolly Parton-tinged vocals grace a version of Someday Soon in tribute to Emmons’ playing on the 1969 Judy Collins hit.
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Norm Hamlet of Merle Haggard’s band takes the steel chair on Roger Miller’shonkytonk hit Invitation to the Blues, but he lets Lee’s spiraling Strat take the song all the way up. Dickens himself sings a fetchingly soulful take of his classic When Your House Is Not a Home, featuring similarly low-key but intense solos from Dugmore and Eddy. Steel player Gary Carter , from Marty Stuart’s band, contributes a spacious, minimalist take of Shenandoah, which turns out to be the most avant garde thing here. The album winds up with Eddy and Dugmore exchanging resonant, elegantly moonlit lines on an instrumental of the Hank Williams classic Mansion on a Hill.

John Zorn’s Abraxas Plunges into the Killer Surf

John Zorn may have made a name for himself in the avant garde, but people forget what a hell of a rock tunesmith he is. Abraxas – guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz, bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Grohowski – have a new album, Psychomagia, out on Tzadik, which finds Zorn going off into noiserock and horror surf with the same kind of out-of-the-box tunefulness and assaultiveness as Beninghove’s Hangmen, or Big Lazy – or Morricone in his most acided-out back in the 60s, all filtered through the noisy prism of downtown NYC jazz. This being Zorn, some of his songs here are very through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses repeat less than you would expect from most surf bands. The result is both more elegant and more feral in places than even the mighty Dick Dale.

The opening track, Metapsychomagia, juxtaposes puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Sacred Emblems is a Tex-Mex nocturne as Pink Floyd might have done it on Meddle, growing from a bittersweet Lee Hazelwood-flavored sway to southwestern gothic majesty. The band works a similar dynamic a little later on the considerably darker Squaring the Circle, a sort of Andalucian bolero surf number with a bracing Middle Eastern edge and unexpected dreampop echoes.

Circe is portrayed via a buzzing, squalling Raybeats-style stomp, the bass holding the center with burning low-register chords while the two guitars ride savage waves out into the maelstrom. Celestial Mechanism is closer to modern-day Balkan jazz than surf music, a shrieking, squalling two-chord vamp with the bass again holding the fort as the drums careen back and forth. Likewise, Four Rivers blends electric Balkan fusion with Israeli stoner metal over tumbling drums – it’s the noisiest thing on the album.

The Nameless God manages to be both the most opaquely indie-flavored and trad surf tune here, following a Ventures-in-space tangent over nebulously resonant, reverb-drenched guitars. The other two tracks here are the artsiest and arguably most interesting. Evocation of the Triumphant Beast is a genuinely evil creature, building from a macabre bolero over a stygian backdrop to searing, noisy postrock and then back with increasingly menacing flickers from the guitars. And Anima Mundi goes in the opposite direction, from an insistent danse macabre to a twinkly, clanging, serpentine guitar interlude that reminds of 70s psychedelic/art-rock legends Nektar. Throughout the album, the twin guitars sometimes wrestle, sometimes trade off gracefully, sometimes echo each other with a close yet dangerous chemistry that threatens to explode any second. On one hand, this album is so tuneful that fans of traditional surf music are going to love it; at the same time, it’s so deliciously evil in places that the most cynical Yo La Tengo diehards might be caught drooling.

So where can you hear this masterpiece? Start here at Youtube.

Midnight Moan Brings the Sound of the Stones Back to Life

 

A cynic would say that Midnight Moan would make a good Stones cover band. A close listen to their forthcoming album Comes in Phases (yeah, they like that kind of innuendo) reveals that they’ve listened closely to the band they most resemble to the point of often being indistinguishable from the Glimmer Twins, from their golden age in the late 60s through the Some Girls period. Again, a cynic might say why bother, the Stones did it first and did it better. On the other hand, if you’re going to rip somebody off, you might as well steal from the best. They’re at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg at 11 PM on April 4.

The opening track, Mulberry has drummer Ricky Gordon doing a stone cold take on the Charlie Watts shuffle, right to the point where Joe Sweeney’s bass rises on the turnaround – the tune itself sounds like White Hassle doing the Stones. While the band’s frontman – who goes by “APB” – has a lot of Mick’s vocal tics down cold, he doesn’t seem to be trying to ape him completely (or if he is, he’s missing the mark). The low-key sax chart and the layers of burning midrange and twanging, trebly guitars from Brian Baker and Steve Cuiffo complete the picture.

The second cut, Short Stay sounds like a Stones demo, or the early Dolls, with loud, clattering drums and slurry Dead Boys chord changes. The closest approximation of the actual thing here is Just Yet – it could be a low-key semi-acoustic slow-burner from Let It Bleed, with a tasty blend of acoustic and open G-tuned electric guitars, organ in at just the perfect place, a spot-on Keith-circa -1969 solo and all kinds of allusions to white stuff.

What I Need bookends what sounds like the Stones covering Wild Thing around the time of Exile, with a reverb-fueled Smokestack Lightning vamp. “You like to take my hand? You best put down your arm,” the singer asserts. Maybe Someday is the closest thing to a track from Exile here. “If only you missed me I wouldn’t need whiskey, I’d be just as drunk as I need – I wouldn’t seek solace in everything lawless, I’d follow wherever you lead”, he promises, “And I’d order another!”

Room 1009 adds a little extra Memphis to a low-key Some Girls groove, a surprisingly vivid Almost Famous-style tableau. You Better Leave Room looks back to a bluesy, piano-spiced Beggars Banquet sway. Better Than Good strongly suggests that the band has been getting into a little riff-rocking Here Come the Miracles-era Steve Wynn along with all the Stones stuff; likewise, the album’s strongest, most original and most biting track, the eerie, nocturnal Turn Yourself Over. Triple Letter puts a lo-fi spin on a generic It’s Only Rock N Roll-style number; the album ends with You Do It Again, bringing it full circle with a sardonic White Hassle vibe.

Fifteen years ago in this city, there were probably at least a couple dozen scruffy wannabe Stones acts playing places like Lakeside and the Continental. Fifteen years before that, there were probably hundreds. A lot of people sneered and called them bar bands – which they were. But groups like Midnight Moan, derivative as they are, might make some of us wish we hadn’t been so dismissive of bands like that because compared to most of the rock coming out of Brooklyn these days, they’re a hell of a lot more fun.

Red Tail Ring Bring Their Vivid, Evocative Americana to the Rockwood

 

On one hand, Kalamazoo, Michigan duo Red Tail Ring play music that’s rustic and old-fashioned, sometimes ancient-sounding. On the other, just like the folksingers of centuries past, they’re taking old sounds to new places. Fiddler/banjoist Laurel Premo is the more traditional of the two, guitarist Michael Beauchamp bringing the occasional hint of indie rock to his tastefully eclectic playing. Their original songs display a deep immersion in an oldtime vernacular, both musically and lyrically, with tasteful songcraft, tight vocal harmonies, solid playing and evocative narratives. Their music is warm, friendly and convivial, in the spirit of its influences. They’re winding up their current US tour with an 11 PM show at the small room at the Rockwood on March 31.

Premo evokes both the elegant, understatedly sophisticated phrasing of Laura Cantrell as well as the newschool folk of Della Mae on Ohio Turnpike, the uneasy nocturnal travelogue that opens the duo’s album The Heart’s Swift Foot, streaming at Spotify. Beauchamp sings the similarly pensive Katy Came Breezing, Premo’s fiddle adding a hypnotic ambience. Dirt Triangle, also sung by Beauchamp, brings a vacant city lot to life, imagining both its colorful past and an optimistic future when the citizens who claim the title to it decide that “this town’s worth more than cash.” Premo follows that with the album’s practically medieval, otherworldly title track. Then the two join forces for the foot-tapping fiddle/banjo reel In the Broom Straw.

Queen of the West & Other Stories is not the Laura Cantrell hit, but a dobro-fueled chronicle of personalities who’ve passed through Beauchamp’s narrator’s up-and-down life; it’s a Studs Terkel tale of sorts transposed to the Great Plains. Premo’s nature imagery on the wistful waltz A Clearing in the Wild portays an emotionally charged relationship hanging in the balance, while Suffer Every Soul reverts to an ancient Britfolk banjo ambience.

Beauchamp follows that with the goodnatured love ballad Body Like a Bell,  then the sepulchrally atmospheric, minimalist St. James Hospital, which sounds like a sketch for St. James Infirmary: in this particular instance, Beauchamp makes it a cowboy song. The album ends up with a gently resonant waltz and then My Heart’s Own Love, which adds a touch of indie ambiguity amidst the warmly rustic country chords and harmonies.

The Spectrum Symphony and Makoko Hirata Bring Thrills to the West Village

Makiko Hirata charged through the raging, ominously cascading torrents of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conductor David Grunberg animatedly leading the Spectrum Symphony through the stormy gusts in tandem with her, through the series of menacing, twistedly marionettish passages. At the end, Hirata’s face lit up in an unselfconsciously triumphant grin as the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. It was the high point of the pianist and orchestra’s concert a couple of days ago in the West Village, yet another indication of how some big city orchestras may be in trouble, but there are many young, hungry ensembles who are clearly on their way up and the Spectrum Symphony are paradigmatic of that shift. As one member of the crowd enthused afterward, “They just get better and better with every show.”

The concluding movements of the Prokofiev are both more subtle and dynamic, not to mention less charged with angry subtext, and the pianist and orchestra focused in on the methodically rising and falling glimmer of the second movement and the richly intricate, often biting interweave between piano and orchestra on the concluding one. This performance was a prime illustration of how composers by Prokofiev’s time had transformed the concerto form from what had been basically a showcase for piano against a wash of orchestration, into a fully cohesive creation where piano and orchestra join forces in developing the architecture.

The orchestra had opened with the New York premiere of an even more explosive if considerably shorter piece, Philip Wharton‘s There Was a Star Danced, which followed the initial big bang resonance of Matthew Beaumont’s huge gong through rapifire showers of sparks from the violins and then what became wryly jaunty, rhythmic jousting. The composer, who was in the audience, explained that the piece had originally been conceived as a work for students to get them to let off some steam. So the ensemble played it again!

The program’s concluding work was an only slightly less kinetic interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. From the perspective of having seen three different performances of this piece this year, this was the most exciting. Grunberg conducted from memory, the orchestra taking this old warhorse to war with an aptly heroic, no-holds barred intensity. The balance between Brahms’ lavishly highlighted, individual voices was clear and distinct throughout the sonic spectrum, through a rewardingly boisterous first movement, a lustrous second, and a final fourth that emphasized more of the high drama in the composer’s Beethovenesque series of false endings than its inherent humor.

Tara O’Grady Brings Her Distinctive, Badass Swing to the Rockwood

Torchy chanteuse Tara O’Grady leads one of the most badass oldtime swing bands you’ll ever hear. One thing that distinguishes her from the legions of come-hither, moldy fig frontwomen is that O’Grady writes her own songs – when she’s at the top of her game, which she generally seems to be, they sound like classics from the 1930s. Which is especially cool since she originally hails not from, say, New Orleans or Kansas City but from Ireland. As you would expect, she occasionally takes a detour into lively Celtic sounds. Her latest album is A Celt in the Cotton Club, streaming at Spotify. She’s fronting a killer quartet with guitar genius Pete Kennedy (one half of the Kennedys) at the third stage at the Rockwood (enter around the corner on Orchard Street) at 7:30 PM on March 28; cover is $15 plus a $10 drink minimum.

O’Grady’s nuanced alto voice strikes a balance between goodnatured sass and serious trouble on the album’s opening track, On Feeling Blue – she leaves you woundering which you’re going to get from her, maybe both. This one is a duet with a hungover-sounding guy – she wants to get up and go with a macchiato, he wants chocolate and resists pulling himself of bed before noon. They sing it as a waltz and then hit a swing shuffle groove with a smoky, incisive tenor sax solo from Michael Hashim

The second track, You Won’t Get Me There Tonight is a kiss-off shuffle fueled by banjo and smoky tenor, Hashin doing triple duty on clarinet and bass clarinet as well – her guy can’t activate al her charms so she’s happy with a bottle of gin instead. A terse bossa-flavored cover of the old folk song Black Is the Color sets a melismatic, noirish tenor sol0 from Hashim – this band’s not-so-secret weapon – over the this-close-to-explosive shuffle groove of bassist Kelly Friesen and drummer Andrew Burns.

O’Grady casually celebrates raging against the dying of the light on the waltzing lullaby In Belfast Tonight, then picks up the pace with Go Lassie Go, which is the folk standard Wild Mountain Thyme done as lickety-split swing with another sizzling Hashim tenor solo. The oldschool soul/blues ballad To be Missing the Sun features a spot-on B.B. King-inspired guitar solo from Justin Poindexter.

O’Grady follows the carefree shuffle Love Me Madly Lashes with the creepy and historically rich That’s What the Miners Would Say, a noir blues that traces the trail of Irish immigrants who followed the seam of coal under the Atlantic all the way to these shores. She brings Bessie Smith into this century on the slow blues Where’s My Valentine: she sees a guy on a Vespa with a bottle of Chablis on Waverly Place and wonders, “Where is my box of truffles, still in Belgium I suppose…I just want someone to text me a love note on my goddamn Blackberry.”

The band goes back to a vintage 60s soul ballad groove on La Dee Da, then O’Grady goes more Celtic as the album winds up. The sultry Gardenia Girl namechecks a box set worth of Lady Day songs, imagining her as an Irish lass named Nora Fagan; O’Grady and the band close by transforming the folk song Too Ra Loo Ra into a warmly swaying vintage 60s soul ballad.

The Baseball Project’s 3rd Album: As Much Fun As an Unassisted Triple Play

The Baseball Project‘s new album, simply titled 3rd, sends you straight to Retrosheet. Baseball may not be the national pastime anymore, but this album is as deep and rich as the lore and the lure of the game. For fans, it’s pretty close to heaven – and for those who aren’t, it won’t alienate anybody because the tunes are so memorable and the playing is so flat-out excellent. What began as a one-off Steve Wynn side project has grown from a well-conceived novelty into a perennial World Series contender. The band is Hall of Fame caliber: Wynn (the Stan Musial of rock) on guitars and most of the lead vocals along with REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills plus the Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, who reasserts herself as the best and most consistently interesting rock drummer out there. The album isn’t up at Spotify yet, but the band’s first two are, so keep an eye out for it.

What makes the Baseball Project ultimately so much fun is that their songs celebrate the weird, the obscure and the tragic rather than the obvious. So many songs about baseball are cheesy and don’t really have a lot to do with the game, but the Baseball Project plunge into the history and the personalities involved, as well as what it’s like to be a diehard fan (and these guys really, really are). Although Wynn, the bandleader, has adopted the Yankees as his team, he’s written insightfully and poignantly about the Boston Red Sox, among other teams, on past albums. This time out, players from the Evil Empire are represented by four songs, while the Atlanta Braves – Mills’ and Buck’s team – also get plenty of props.

The first track is Stats, a pseudo-Ventures spacerock stomp with a seemingly random litany of numbers recited by Pitmon: random, that is, until you realize that’s Nolan Ryan’s season-record 383 strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak…and then the guessing gets really good. For those who don’t know, stats are crack for baseball fans and so is this song.

Two of the best songs here, neither of which namecheck the player involved, are the most depressing. From Nails to Thumbtacks traces the career arc of one of the early steroid casualties, Lenny Dykstra, who went from spare outfielder with the Mets to sudden and prodigiously beefed-up stardom with the Phillies, only to wind up behind bars after a long, long downward spiral. “You gotta be high to fall this far,”McCaughey intones over a backdrop that’s part Ramones, part new wave. And 13, arguably the best song on the album, looks at the A-Roid scandal with even more of a caustic eye than Wynn cast on Roger Clemens in the gorgeous Twilight of My Career, from the band’s first album Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails. Over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western tune, Wynn explains how Alex Rodriguez took #13 as his Yankees uniform number since Babe Ruth wore #3, but ultimately it was hubris rather than bad luck that scuttled the third baseman’s assault on Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Wynn evokes his classic 2001 riff-rocker Strange New World in Hola America, the brooding account of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, whose World Series stardom with the Yankees obscures the alienation he must have felt while estranged from his family in a new culture. McCaughey celebrates Dock Ellis, not for the Pirates pitcher’s acid-fueled no-hitter, but for his abbreviated start on May 1, 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup as payback for what he perceived as hotdogging – and also to energize his lacklustre team, a ploy that actually worked! Mystified manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Ellis five batters into the first inning, but the hurler’s message had been heard loud and clear.

The mid-90s REM-style powerpop hit To the Veterans Committee makes a soaringly persuasive case for enshrining longtime Braves centerfielder Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame. Not only was Murphy one of his era’s top power hitters, he made the tricky transition from catcher to centerfield – where he won more than one Gold Glove – and he also was (and maybe still is) a competent piano player!

Box Scores celebrates a great tradition that someday may only be accessible on your phone, but as Buck reminds, “Every summer, every day, the box scores keep me sane.” The only really obvious track here, The Babe, sends a shout-out to the Sultan of Swat over a regal Hey Jude pulse lowlit by some deliciously watery vintage chorus-box guitar. Another tribute to a home run king, They Don’t Know Henry makes haunting 60s style garage-psych rock out a tip of the cap to Henry Aaron.

McCaughey cynically ponders what makes the low-budget Oakland A’s so good – and connects the dots between Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and the recently retired, mostly mediocre Dallas Braden – over a slinky Stones/T-Rex groove. Mills and Pitmon share vocals on Pascual on the Perimeter, memorializing the afternoon when the Braves’ eccentric righthander ostensibly got lost on the way to the ballpark – and wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro started in his place. Part Dream Syndicate, part True West and maybe part Yo La Tengo, it’s got some of the best snarling, burning guitar of any of the tracks here.

Larry Yount, a pensive folk-rock number by Wynn, recalls the older brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, whose single big league appearance ended before he’d thrown a pitch. He hurt himself while warming up after coming in from the Astros bullpen late in 1971 and never again appeared in a game.

The material gets funnier as the album goes along. The Baseball Card Song is a country patter tune rippling along with Buck’s banjo and a rapidfire rap by Wynn…see, he’d held onto the collection he’d amassed as a kid until this big Wall Street guy offered him some stock in a startup in exchange, and then the fun really starts. Another patter song riffs on both Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue and Heart’s Barracuda, a sideways look at a fireballing Red Sox righty who never won a single Cy Young Award despite his 511 career victories. Instead of the usual tired round-the-bases metaphors, the wry faux 70s boudoir soul number Extra Inning of Love looks at another kind of game you play at night from the perspective of a pitcher rather than a batter. And the album ends with Take Me Out to the Ballgame done Ramones style.

There’s also the They Played Baseball, a folk-rock rogues’ gallery of sorts: “Durocher had his lip, and Bob Welch his great big wine, Piniella had his temper, Mendoza had his line and it’s a fine line,” McCaughey grins. Which perfectly sums up this album, and this band: if you know who those guys are, this is for you. Now let’s get Steve Wynn to throw out the first pitch at a Mets home game sometime this year!

Yoko Miwa Makes an Eclectically Lyrical Blue Note Debut

In her Blue Note debut yesterday, Yoko Miwa showed off a comfortable but hard-charging command of several jazz vernaculars. She made elegant ragtime out of Monk, worked a playful carnaval pulse back and forth on one number, and managed to make a jauntily entertaining trip to New Orleans out of what was essentially a one-chord vamp. But the vernacular that she excelled the most with was her own. That style favors lots of big block chords stretched mostly across the piano’s midrange, which she builds expansively but purposefully to big, glittering, anthemic crescendos. Think of a more carefree Brad Mehldau (that shouldn’t be hard!) and you’re on the right track.

When she wasn’t doing that, the Boston-based pianist pulled plenty of other tricks out of the bag: pensively spacious minor-key blues, a scampering righthand against a stern left, tension and release around a central tone, intricately conversational interplay with the guys in her fantastic trio (Will Slater on bass and Scott Goulding on drums), and the occasional unrestrained glissando to take a phrase or a chorus all the way over the top. She’s fun to watch and just as tuneful.

She opened with a confident, spaciously swinging take of A Beautiful Friendship, Slater’s solo matching her steady, methodical upward trajectory. Pathways, an original, was one of the high points of her first set, rising from an anthemically circular solo piano groove to an animated samba beat; Miwa had just as much fun sending the rhythm section away and swinging by herself as she did engaging in a tightly spiraling, interlocking web of melody with Slater’s edgy upper-register lines. Goulding worked terse, subtly ornamented shuffles for most of the set, concluding Miwa’s cinematic, darkly majestic, enigmatically blues-infused 2013 indie film theme Sunshine Before the Rain with a deliciously torrential cymbal cadenza. Miwa made similarly moody blues out of Patsy Cline’s So Wrong and wound up the set on a high note with another original, In My Dreams, all three musicians choosing their spots, Miwa using it as a launching pad for some unexpectedly rapidfire righthand runs down out of the tinkliest high registers.

And the day got off to a good start before the concert with a guy who’d managed to wheel a baby grand into Washington Square Park, where he furiously rubbed his hands together between numbers in order to keep the circulation going on such an unexpectedly chilly morning. That he was able to turn in an absolutely exquisite, thoughtfully dynamic take of Rachmaninoff”s G sharp minor prelude under those conditions portends good things for the guy’s career, whoever he is.

Armen Donelian Reinvents Revolutionary, Haunting Armenian Classics

The first thing that comes to mind when listening to pioneering pianist Armen Donelian‘s new double album Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors – due out on April 15 from Sunnyside – is why aren’t these songs world-famous? Thanks to Donelian, someday they might be. With his new arrangements for solo piano and trio with bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller, Donelian has reinvented over an hour and a a half worth of music by iconic 18th century Armenian composer Sayat-Nova. Celebrated as a national hero and a paradigm-shifting intellect whose plaintive, angst-ridden, often shattering melodies both resemble and predate Chopin by practically a century, Sayat-Nova is also renowned as a lyricist. He was a master of the kamancheh fiddle and the tar lute. His main gig was as a court minstrel for a local tyrant, a relatively cushy job, but one from which he was eventually fired. Within his compositions’ elegant, often enigmatic phrasing, there’s often a seething if restrained anger, and more frequently an absolutely depleted, wounded sensibility. We don’t know why Sayat-Nova got canned, or why he subsequently more or less abandoned music – at least professionally – joined the priesthood and later retired to a monastery. He may have known or figured out too much for his own good – or slept with someone he shouldn’t have.

Donelian’s feeling of kinship with Sayat-Nova is as strong as his passion for Armenian music in general, having played Armenian-influenced jazz for many years with reedman Souren Baronian, drummer Paul Motian and chanteuse Datevik Hovanesian. The operative question, obviously, is how to translate this music – written to incorporate the microtones of the fiddle and voice – for the rigid digits of the piano. Donelian does it chromatically. Yet while improvisation is the key to this whole thing – as it assuredly was when Sayat-Nova himself was playing it – Donelian keeps the main themes true to the originals. His arrangements and melodic variations maintain a similar consistency with the themes’ emotional content: this is a deep album. It’s not at Spotify yet, but watch for it after the release date.

The first of the double-disc set is solo pieces. What’s most stunning is how contemporary this music sounds even though some of it is 250 years old. The bittersweet lullaby Without You, What Will I Do? could pass for a rock ballad from the 70s, as does the gentler but considerably more jaunty I Call Lalanin (ostensibly a coded message to the composer’s secret love). The only concert recording here, Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls switches up the time signatures as it recalls Dave Brubeck taking a stab at Chopin. The Polish composer is evoked – or, more accurately, prefigured – most vividly in the angst-ridden I’ll Never Know Your True Worth (the famous E Minor Prelude comes to mind).

Donelian brings out a similarly grim bitter edge and sense of longing to the plaintively crescendoing Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale?, and the foresaken stranger’s lament I Have Traveled the Whole World Over. He blends elements of the Middle East and the neoromantic in Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry? and Praised Among All Instruments. a late-career danse macabre that may foreshadow the composer’s downfall. The downright scariest of all the songs here is the Erik Satie-esque With the Nightingale You Also Cry, with its stunned, spaciously pitch-black sense of loss.

As you would expect, the second cd, with its jazz arrangements, is more rhythmically complex and improvisational. King of Cathay grows from a careful stroll with hints of Asian music to dancing variations; Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk builds out of an otherworldly, rapt intro with allusions to ragtime. You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade rises from a stately march to a snazzy, blues-tinged racewalk. The best of the trio pieces is the long, serpentine As Long As I Draw Breath, which foreshadows Satie again, Donelian bookending a long, loungey interlude with a morose waltz. There’s also a ringer here, My Sweet Harp, by a more recent Armenian composer, Khachatur Avetisyan, with a similar blend of creepy, stately and eventually Arabic tonalities. Donelian has stated that this is a lifelong labor of love for him, the high point of an already distinguished and original career and he’s probably right. He plays the album release show on April 4 at 7:30 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St.; $20 standing room tix are available.